Greece's Elgin Marbles--Finders Keepers? Or Return 'Em?

From today’s NY Times:

Directors of major European and American museums have issued a strongly worded statement affirming their right to keep long-held antiquities that countries like Greece and Egypt, with increasing insistence, have demanded be repatriated. The statement, signed by directors of 18 museums, including Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the heads of nine other American institutions, was released last week to a newspaper in London, where the British Museum has resisted Greek demands for the return — even on temporary loan — of the marble sculptures and friezes removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1801 to 1803. That statement acknowledges that illegal traffic in ancient and ethnic artwork should now be “firmly discouraged.” But it argues that objects acquired in the past should be “viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.” Those objects “have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them,” the statement says.

Greece has been lobbying hard to have the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, where they would be the centerpiece of a new museum being built at the Acropolis. The Greek campaign began in earnest some 20 years ago when Melina Mercouri, then minister of culture, made the return of the marbles a matter of national pride. “The marbles were martyred by an Englishman to decorate his house,” said the fiery actress. “It was an act of barbarism. For Greeks the Parthenon isn’t just any monument, it’s the monument. It represents our soul.” Lord Elgin obtained Turkish permission to remove the marbles from the Parthenon when he was ambassador to the Ottomon Empire, of which Greece was then a part. They were later sold to the British government, which insists to this day that the marbles were legally obtained.

—What do you think? Hmmmm?

It isn’t as if the Greek or Egyptian governments were doing a great job of protecting these relics in the past. If I were a museume that had taken care of these things for many years I don’t think I’d be inclined to return anything.


If he hadn’t removed them, they wouldn’t likely be around today for the Greeks to demand them back.

The bit about “rightful owners” gets real murky when dudes are asking for something back from some two hundred years ago. Did the original Athenians themselves get the marble by buying it- or from war booty?

On the other hand, a loan for the Olympics would be a nice gesture.

Not sure where I come down on the issue, but I know why they’re unwilling to consider a loan - there’s a fair chance, I suspect, that they wouldn’t get the items back. Possession is nine points of the law.

They were stolen, no doubt about it.

The only question, as I see it, is whether 200 years covers the statute of limitations for theft.

I say return them.

They are a huge of the most important time in Greek history. For the Greeks it’s their pride and heritage.

Give 'em back.

Well, to be fair, if they were taken from Greece in 1803, well, there WAS no Greek government to take care of them-Greece as a nation did not exist-it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Quite frankly I don’t think they’ll ever go back because once the BM returns them it’ll open a flood gate. The Greek government doesn’t really have very much leverage against the UK in order to get them back. AFAIK when they were taken there was no such country as Greece as it was still a province in the Ottoman empire, so on legal grounds I don’t think Greece has a leg to stand on.

Har har. Let Greece and Egypt declare war on Italy, France, Great Britain, the U.S., etc., if they want their booty back. While they’re at it, the Greeks can have at the city of Rome for swiping their culture.

– Ukulele “Art Transcends Nations” Ike

Might be justified in this case, but the people who decide these things should be very careful. I don’t care to imagine a world in which all ancient artifacts have been returned to their countries of origin, depriving those who cannot visit those countries the opportunity of ever seeing them.

Among other things, it’s my understanding that the Greeks were using the Parthenon as an ammo dump, which is how the Elgin marbles got broken and how the British wound up with them. If I’m wrong, please correct me.

This may be my British half being hyper-patriotic, but I’m not in favour of the British Museum giving them back.


Not to hijack, but a somewhat similar argument has been applied to the treasures of the National Palace Museum now located in Taiwan. Whoever claims ownership of them, at least the artifacts themselves were preserved and kept together as a collection.

Lord Elginbought the Parthenon friezes (aka the Elgin Marbles) from the then legitimate local authorities, i.e. the representative of the Ottoman Empire. Elgin (or his heirs) subsequently donated them to the nation (the UK) and are on display in the British Museum. Of all parts of the Parthenon, they are probably in the best condition, since they do not experience the corrosive air pollution of modern Athens.

They were never stolen. Greece (a country that only came into existence in 1823-ish) has no legal claim on them at all.

Beyond that, what would you rather support? The idea that Europe has a common intellectual and philosophical heritage that transcends borders, or the view that these borders represent lines between insular communities with an almost xenophobic sense of ownership?

The British Museum and Government have been making diplomatic-sounding noises in the last couple of years. My guess is they’re waiting for something they really want from Greece and will then use them as a bargaining chip.

Those plane-spotting knobheads obviously just weren’t worth it.

“My guess is they’re waiting for something they really want from Greece and will then use them as a bargaining chip.”

How much could a really good baklava recipe be worth?

Nah, they could get a perfectly good balaclava off Martin McGuinness.


I’ll get me coat.


You would be wrong. Never mind the millenia the Parthenon existed in Greece without ever having been blown up by Greeks (who, as you seem to imply, apparently can’t be trusted with their own cultural heritage).

Ya, that bit about the Parthenon having existed in Greece for some 2000 years with a strong Western historical tradition to confirm it is pretty murky.

The marble came from local quarries. Ever been to Athens? The rock the Parthenon is built on is marble. The marble itself isn’t important, but the cultural heritage that the Parthenon and those marbles represent is. It matters very little whether it happened 200 years ago or not, it came about as result of cultural raiding. It is so 100 years ago to insinuate that people like the Greeks don’t deserve the things that were taken from them back because they can’t take as good of care of them as northern Europeans can.

None of that will matter anyway, I predict that these marbles will eventually be used as a bargaining chip and the Greeks will get their Parthenon pieces back. It’s going to happen because it is obvious that Greece is where they belong. I’ve seen both the Elgin Marbles in London and the Acropolis in Greece, be nice if I could see them at the same time.

I stand corrected. The “Turks” (can I assume that means the Ottoman Empire"?) were storing gunpowder there when it was bombarded by the Venetians, according to the cited website which also refers to Elgin’s “looting” of the Parthenon. Elgin purchased and salvaged the remnants of the Parthenon a few years before Greek independence.

I’m still curious about how much Athenian resistance there was to using the Parthenon to store gunpowder, and about what would have happened if Lord Elgin hadn’t purchased the remnants. I know marble erodes slowly, but pieces of sculpture aren’t that difficult to walk away with.

This is not meant as any disparagement of the Greeks; more an acknowledgement that familiarity does tend to breed contempt, as in “What? That old building?” and that nations involved in war have higher priorities than preserving antiquities.


I’m definitely in favor of them being given back to Greece. I don’t think that every piece of jewelry or sculpture should be returned to their original country, but when the item is unique, historically and culturally of the upmost importance for the country of origin, or when it’s a part of a momnument of major importance which has been defaced (legally or not, long time ago or recently), it should.
I don’t know exactly where the frontier should be drawn, but the marbles are certainly on of the most obvious example you can imagine. The Parthenon is the most famous Greek monument, is still standing, and now at least, the greek authorities have the means and will to protect the marbles from degradation (for instance, I don’t think that the elements belonging to major mesopotamian palaces kept in the Louvre in Paris or the Pergamon museum in Berlin should be returned to Irak right now, assuming that Saddam Hussein would want them back).
Some artworks are really too central to a country’s history and heritage to be kept elsewhere on the basis of some flimpsy legal excuse.